the journals of ola nilsson

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the journals of ola nilsson

“Take My Music North and I Will Offer You My Blessing”


Among the less important Funerary Violinists unearthed through my many and meandering researches, one man stands out, not for his contribution to the Art, which was indeed negligible; nor for his great artistry, which was adequate but by no means exceptional: but for the sheer wealth of first hand archive materials that he left behind. I first heard rumours of Ola Nilsson whilst working as advisor on Funerary Violin for the ill-fated film Deathly Strains in Nuremburg in 1994. One evening after the shoot the second assistant cameraman, Tor Benteinn, a Norwegian from Harstad, happened to mention, somewhat in passing, that he recalled his grandmother talking of a family of Funerary Violinists who had lived in a cave just east of the town. Whether this was merely a local folk tale, or had some basis in fact he had no idea. I was immediately interested in this notion as I had found no records whatever to suggest that the Art had spread any further north than Copenhagen, and even a folk tale involving a Funerary Violinist so very far north would imply a branch of the Art hitherto unknown. When the film was unceremoniously closed down two weeks later, and suddenly as a result having three weeks available to me, I travelled, with Tor, to Harstad in the hope of  tracing some rumour or clue to this mystery. What I found, admittedly after nearly a week of unrewarding interviews, was well beyond all my expectations, and indeed my ability to digest, as it consisted of 47 leather bound journals and three boxes of assorted papers, all hand-written in Old Swedish. This collection was in the hands of Hildr Hök, an elderly woman, whose grandfather was said to have “rescued” it from the cave after the death of Ola Nilsson V, the last of the dynasty. After some considerable effort of persuasion she agreed that I might arrange to take the entire collection back to England for study.

The situation greatly tested my patience, as it was a further three months before the archive had been safely acquired and funds had been raised to pay a Swedish translator to embark upon the epic task. (I must here acknowledge the tremendous fortitude of Magnus Björkegren, who worked on this project for two and a half years in what could be described as difficult circumstances, and showed great tolerance and forbearance in the face of my own frustrations at the time taken to finish the job).

What slowly emerged was extraordinary in many unexpected ways.

The 47 leather bound journals were all the work of the original Ola Nilsson who made the journey to Harstad, later evidently known by his descendants as Ola Nilsson I. Clearly written to be read by posterity, the journals inadvertently paint a remarkably honest picture of what was evidently a particularly unpleasant man: arrogant, condescending, racist, manipulative, heartless, cruel, deluded, dishonest, and totally self-absorbed, though also occasionally capable of valuable insights and moments of self-knowledge. Much of the 47 volumes are filled with tedious self-aggrandisements and mundane accounts of the everyday, which may be of interest to some social scholars, but are of no concern for this history: however, the first two volumes, which cover his journey to Harstad, and his often bizarre methods employed in attempting to integrate the Art into what was fundamentally a superstitious peasant culture, often read like nothing short of a Boy’s Own adventure, and indeed it is his missionary zeal for extending the realm of the Art well into the arctic circle, that makes him, in the opinion of the author, worthy of inclusion in this Incomplete History, regardless of his motives.

Ola Nilsson I is thought to have been born in Stockholm in 1760. There is virtually no mention of his early life in the journals, save that his parents were successful wine merchants and he had some family links with Vienna. He was clearly well educated, had a not insubstantial private income, and it is implied, though not actually stated, that he learnt the violin from his mother, who it seems was a good performing amateur. The earliest entries in the journal are dated February 1782, but it is in volume 18, written in 1801, that he reveals the catalyst for what was to become a remarkable journey that would change the entire course of his entire life. The meeting he refers to is thought to have happened in October 1881 during a visit to Vienna:

I can still recall in every detail the day I met Herr Gratchenfleiss at the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna, and how his playing transformed me in every way, from the gay youth that I once was, to the man of substance that I have today become. His bold nobility, strong masculine beauty and unswerving commitment to his Art were forever etched into both my mind and my heart, and it was then that I vowed to remake myself in his image. And how I have treasured the book of scores that he so generously gave me with the words, “take my music North, and I will offer you my blessing”. And so I have, and I can but hope that, were he to know of all that I have done he might be proud of his own small hand in this, my true-found vocation.

Again there are very few details but it seems that he apprenticed himself to Albrecht Feinstein, in Wroclaw, West Prussia, for around 6 months before taking Herr Gratchenfleiss’ words quite literally and heading north in the company of Knut Sjöblom, his allegedly mute manservant: (the last entry in his final journal, written by his newly widowed wife indicates that Sjöblom was not in fact mute, as shall be seen). As already stated, the journals begin in February 1782, but it is not until he approaches his chosen destination of Harstad in September that they become of considerable interest to the scholar of the history of Funerary Violin. Why he chose Harstad is entirely unknown, though it is certainly among the most northerly towns (at the time it was little more than a fishing village) in today’s Norway. What is clear is that he would have stood little chance of success or indeed survival without Sjöblom, who, though only 17 at the time, was clearly a strong and strapping young man, well capable of all the practical necessities of life, even in those difficult climes: that he tolerated Nilsson’s evident brutality towards him at all is only understandable in the light of a social structure now long since dismantled by the terrible events of the 20th century.

The passages relating to his arrival in Harstad and his first demonstrations of the Art run to over 100 pages across volumes 1 and 2 of the journals, and give a wonderful insight both into the problems of introducing a new tradition into what was then a long established and superstitious folk culture, and into Nilsson’s own heartlessly cunning and manipulative approach to addressing these issues. Given that all of the evidence for this bold and not unsuccessful attempt at taking the Art of Funerary Violin to the northern climes comes from one source alone, it seems appropriate to present the story in Nilsson’s own words, albeit translated and heavily edited, as any commentary without cross-references would seem superfluous.

Will all patrons please remain seated
Whilst I belittle myself to amuse you
For I've tried pretty metaphors and sensitive rhymes
But the effort just seemed to confuse you
Rev. Rohan K.

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